The music biz adapts to setbacks in ways that aren’t unlike the tobacco industry, which reacted to a decrease in cigarette smoking by reformulating an interest in cigars and designing a range of new novelty smoking products, or Hollywood, which crippled modern screenwriting to embark upon remaking practically every existing film, TV show or cartoon.
One current popular musical trend is the tribute act — a 21st -century growth industry largely fueled by veteran performers that, to listeners who would prefer something new, could approximate audio tobacco or the inevitable forthcoming remake of The Breakfast Club.
Elvis Presley has been gone for nearly 40 years, but Scott Ringersen entertains throngs every Monday night with two presentations of “The Elvis Experience” at Johnnie Brown’s in Delray Beach. Similar sound-alike (and in some cases, like Ringersen’s, lookalike) tributes exist from international to local, saluting former icons from The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Grateful Dead — like Deerfield Beach-based Crazy Fingers, one of South Florida’s longest-standing bands, which raised the Dead every Sunday night at Boston’s On the Beach in Delray Beach. There are even tribute battles-of-the-bands at the annual South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach.
Since audiences can no longer see those performers, some tributes make sense. What’s more surprising is the tributes to current touring and recording acts from The Rolling Stones, Eagles and Journey to Pink Floyd (an Australian version of which sells out arenas), Santana and Tom Petty.
Rocker-turned-crooner Rod Stewart may live locally, but it’s easier to see area impersonator George Orr’s “Hot Rod” show. And a poster at Downtown at the Gardens last month advertised a series the city of Palm Beach Gardens calls “Rock and Roll Summer.” At its downtown park, every Friday night through the season, tribute bands have been playing free shows that include expected nods to classic rock artists such as The Beatles (by After the Beatles) and Beach Boys (by Shindigs).
Others in the series are odes to Bon Jovi (Keep the Faith), Heart (Barracuda), Billy Joel (Turnstiles), Pearl Jam (Pearl Jamz), KISS (KISS America), Eric Clapton (Crossroads), Bruce Springsteen (The Boss Project), and Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Max).
Two other tributes, Big City Nights (to the Scorpions) and Idol Generation (Billy Idol), may qualify as signs that a musical apocalypse sneaked in on a deejay’s coattails to peruse the karaoke sign-up sheet.
“Carlos Santana has said that he doesn’t like tribute bands playing his music, because some of them practically destroy it,” says guitarist/vocalist Galo Rivera, whose veteran Santana Tribute Band is in its 15th year. “But you don’t really have to get permission from an artist to put together a tribute band to them, only in order to record any of their material. When we’ve done that, we’ve paid a flat rate of mechanical royalties.
“But we realize that not just anyone can play Santana. I’ve heard lots of bands try to play ‘Black Magic Woman,’ but it’s usually sounded like crap. Tributes are just the hot thing right now,” Rivera said.
A native of Puerto Rico, the St. Cloud-based Rivera started his tribute to the still-active, Woodstock-era San Francisco juggernaut while living in South Florida before moving to Central Florida three years ago. But the seven-piece band, which also features lead vocalist Menchi Hernandez, keyboardist Noel Torres, bassist Tebelio “Tony” Fonte, drummer Raul Hernandez, conga player Joe Collado and timbale player Edgardo Crespo, is still popular enough for Rivera to drive back to Palm Beach County for gigs.
“I’m thinking of starting a similar project in Orlando,” Rivera says, “because I don’t live far from there. But that lineup, with so many long-standing members, is almost like family to me. The band got started after I’d worked with a friend and recording engineer named Glen Kolotkin, who worked on two songs for Santana’s Grammy-winning ‘Supernatural’ album. It hadn’t been out long when we started, and it just helped us explode out of the gate.”
Of course, that 1999 release started the modern phase of Santana’s career — with less emphasis on the raw, rhythmic, energetic band named after its guitarist and more on production, ballads, duets, and that guitarist himself. Supernatural, with guest appearances by Rob Thomas (the aptly-titled hit single “Smooth”), Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, and Eric Clapton, won a fistful of Grammy awards and went platinum multiple times.
Rivera’s band has released two CDs, Extended Play and Galo’s Tribute to Santana, both recorded at his portable facility GR Music Recording Studios (www.grmusic.net). Both also feature former singer, bassist and co-founder Bill Rabon, who moved back to his native Alabama around the same time Rivera relocated to St. Cloud. The title of the latter, Rivera says, encompasses his idea of a proper tribute.
“I included two songs that I wrote on the latest CD,” he says, “and we play original material live as well. Plus, we don’t play the Santana covers note-for-note or try to look like them. It’s gotten to where I tell people that I don’t have a Santana tribute band, but rather play in a band that pays tribute to Santana. There’s a difference.
“When we started, there were only three or four Santana tributes around the world. Now there’s at least 15. We charge a little bit more than what I get paid with other bands, but we put on a real show. I’m not gonna disrespect Santana’s music.”
Another California band, Journey, was actually started by former Santana band members Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar/vocals). Moderate early success between 1973 and 1977 led to the addition of leather-lunged lead vocalist Steve Perry, who fronted Journey as it became one of the biggest bands in the world between 1978 and 1987.
Rolie left in 1980, taking his Hammond organ with him, but when he was replaced by synthesizer specialist Jonathan Cain, the ’80s stadium rock sound was born through the band’s anthems (“Separate Ways,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”) and ballads (“Open Arms,” “Faithfully”).
Perry’s solo success, and a serious hip injury, led to his slow fade. The band has officially replaced him with several different singers since 1998, essentially making each subsequent Journey lineup a touring tribute act to its own greatest commercial success. While it has never had matching critical acclaim, Journey’s strong musicianship, pop hooks and layered vocal harmonies certainly had an impact on the five guys who formed the Palm Beach County-based tribute act Odyssey Road (www.odysseyroadband.com) in 2009.
Like Rivera’s tribute to Santana, Odyssey Road makes no attempt to actually resemble Journey. But lead singer James “Bubba” Sanderford, keyboardist/vocalist Mike Soper, guitarist/vocalist Paul Granato, bassist/vocalist Bobby Gugliuzza and drummer/vocalist Brian Lutz certainly recreate the throwback sound.
“We’ve been asked by agencies to try to look like Journey as well,” Soper says, “but we decided ahead of time to avoid that.”
“The most common question we get,” Sanderford says, “is ‘Would your singer be willing to wear a wig?’ But being that I’m only 5-foot-3, I’m afraid that I’d look like a mop walking around on stage.”
Odyssey Road has actually won South Florida Fair tribute band contests; toured north to eastern Canada and west to Montana, released a 2010 CD of 17 Journey cover tunes called Essence Recaptured, and had an original composition called “If I Never Have You” reach number 27 on the U.K. iTunes pop charts.
The idea for a Journey tribute started when Sanderford and Soper decided to take their estimable talents out of the closet.
“Bubba had played in bands most of his life, but hadn’t performed for 16 years,” Soper says, “and I thought I’d retired from playing until he called me with this idea. Journey has such a wide fan base, including kids, because TV shows like ‘Glee’ had picked up some of their music.”
The keyboardist actually sings lead, both live and on the CD, on pre-Perry, Rolie-sung tunes like “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime.” Having all five instrumentalists sing allows Odyssey Road to recreate some of the layered, textured vocal harmonies that Journey became known for, but Soper gives much of the credit to Sanderford — whose range is much like that of Perry’s.
“With Bubba’s voice, I knew we had a good shot to pull this off,” Soper says. “His voice isn’t normal. We do the Journey songs in their original key signatures. If you don’t have that rare contralto-tenor vocal range, Perry’s parts will burn you out, but Bubba has the range.”
Sanderford gives equal credit to Soper, and says that part of the reason he called him first was for some of the connections that paid off in rounding out the lineup.
“Mike knew Bobby, and both of them are very good singers,” says Sanderford. “Mike has the kind of soft, raspy, airy voice that already makes him sound like three people singing. We knew we needed strong voices to reproduce the sound properly, and also knew that any guitarist we found would have their hands full trying to create all of Neal Schon’s parts. Bobby was primarily a guitarist and drummer, but he learned to play bass to be in this band. His harmonies are integral, and Paul and Brian have helped with some of the lower and higher parts.”
With day jobs ranging from piano tuning, musical education and painting to vocal coaching, talent development and computer advertising, the members of Odyssey Road are in the enviable position to only need to play occasional high-end shows.
“We’ve done most of our own booking,” says Sanderford, “but we have a new agency out of New Jersey called On That Note that we’re considering. We average about two shows a month lately, and can get two to three times the average gig pay for South Florida because we pay homage to a specific band, and do it well.”
One musician who really didn’t need to start a tribute act for commercial reasons, considering his regular musical job, was bassist/vocalist Will Lee — who studied at the University of Miami while his father Bill Lee was dean of its music school; moved to New York City in 1971, and was in the house band for the recently-completed Late Show With David Letterman since 1982.
“We have three shows left,” Lee said in mid-May, “after a great run of more than 6,000. I’m sad, but also looking forward to having more time for producing, writing and traveling. It’ll be nice to be able to get out of town for more than a week at a time.”
Led throughout by keyboardist Paul Shaffer, the only other consistent charter member of the band for Letterman’s show (which closed a 33-year run between the NBC and CBS networks on May 20) has been Lee — who nonetheless decided to start a Beatles tribute act roughly halfway through that span in 1998.
The Fab Faux (www.thefabfaux.com) is a TV all-star band of sorts, since it also features guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Jimmy Vivino from the Conan O’Brien show, along with other gifted Big Apple-area musicians in guitarist/vocalist Frank Agnello, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Jack Petruzzelli, and drummer/vocalist Rich Pagano.
Deciding that sounding like the Beatles without resorting to trying to look like them was challenging enough, the quintet often performs concerts of latter-era Beatles studio material, like Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road LPs in their entirety.
“I was already part of perhaps the most visible cover band there’s ever been in the Letterman band,” Lee says. “So I have to give my great friend Paul Shaffer credit for basically teaching me how to dig deep into records, get details, and rehearse material like this. Without Paul’s influence, there might have been no Fab Faux. It was Rich who initially mentioned the idea to me, and we went about finding the right people to pull it off. And here we are, averaging 40-plus dates per year in the United States and internationally.”
The visibility of Lee and Vivino, in particular, has helped the Fab Faux retain the same five musicians for 17 years. And having five alternately lead and backing vocalists, not to mention Vivino’s and Petruzzelli’s keyboard abilities, allows for coverage of Beatles classics that a quartet couldn’t account for.
Even the additional Hogshead Horns and Creme Tangerine Strings sections that get added for specific shows have featured mostly the same personnel throughout the Fab Faux’s duration. But there was an early decision to not attempt to actually look like The Beatles, the way a touring tribute act like Rain does. Initially formed in California 40 years ago, Rain mushroomed into a Broadway sensation in 2010, as an ensemble cast donned wigs and facial hair to mimic both the look and sound of the original article.
“The thing that probably kept me from doing a Beatles band for so long was not wanting to do it that way,” Lee says. “Rich and I agreed it would be better to bring their records to the stage, but played correctly. I knew Jimmy, who’s such a great musical archivist that he had to be in the band, and bugged him until he relented. And Rich and Jimmy really helped to find Frank and Jack.”
With a slogan that’s a line from “Strawberry Fields Forever” (“Nothing is real”), the Fab Faux has also made a conscious decision not to re-record Beatles material.
“The main reason for that is that it was all done right the first time,” Lee says. “Those guys were like emotional scientists in the studio with producer George Martin. So unless you’re going to do something completely original arrangement-wise, like Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ or Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ why bother?”
If you go:
See Rod Stewart tribute performer George Orr from 5-8 p.m. on June 7 at Benny’s On the Beach, 10 S. Ocean Blvd., Lake Worth (561-582-9001).
See Grateful Dead tribute band Crazy Fingers at 7:30 p.m. every Sunday at Boston’s On the Beach, 40 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach (561-278-3364).
See Elvis Presley tribute performer Scott Ringersen at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. every Monday at Johnnie Brown’s, 301 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach (561-243-9911).
See Journey tribute band Odyssey Road at 7:30 p.m. on July 4 for a free, all-ages show at the Royal Palm Beach July 4 Celebration at Royal Palm Beach Commons Park, 11600 Poinciana Blvd., Royal Palm Beach (561-790-5140).
The Fab Faux have no Florida dates currently scheduled. Their next appearance is at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on June 6. See www.thefabfaux.com.